Homeward Bound

We were halfway through January and I was willing the nights to start drawing out. I longed to see signs of Spring thrusting itself upon us. I was perhaps a little unrealistic and premature in my expectations, but it made me feel a lot better. I’d spoken to Lil several times during the week, in-between her visits to the hospital. Mavis was doing well, in the circumstances, and was already starting to offer inpatient improvement advice to the hospital staff. The background information I now possessed regarding the complicated history between the two urban sisters hadn’t affected my views of either; if anything my resolve to protect Lil had increased. Armando didn’t know their full backstory yet and I didn’t feel right brining him up to speed. If he was to know Lil would have to retell her story or ask me to do so.

My early waking thoughts focussed on the impossible choice of temperature-appropriate attire. The weather was yo-yoing between freezing or damp and mild. My Teasmade hadn’t whooshed yet so I didn’t need to be overly concerned until I’d at least had the first Assam of the day. I poked my toes out from the protection of the duvet and they didn’t recoil which was promising.

I arrived at the café, having decided that layers was the only way, to find Lil and Gisela already in situ.

‘Blimey, are the sides of your hair short enough?’ Lil said.

‘Morning to you both, and yes thanks. I want it to be disconnected from the top.’ I kissed both of the seniors. Gisela looked a little uncomfortable, and I hoped it wasn’t my show of physical affection. She hadn’t reacted thus previously.

‘The top’s a bit long. It looks like a wig.’ Lil cackled.

‘I can assure you it’s all mine. Do you want to give it a tug?’

‘Get away with ya.’ It was nice to see Lil back to her bantering best.

Armando joined us. His apron looked grubby and frayed around the edges.

‘Is it scruff day?’ Lil asked.

‘What do you mean?’

‘You look less pristine than usual,’ Gisela said.

‘It’s yesterday’s. Is it that obvious? I forgot to bring in the clean ones today.’

‘Don’t worry about it. Everything all right?’

‘Yeah I guess.’ We all sat forward waiting for the update. However, at that moment Judith arrived with the pot. I’d never before wished a teapot of Assam was a few minutes late.

‘Is Bill joining us?’ I asked.

‘Later, let’s order, I’m hungry.’

Lil ordered her usual, Armando a coffee, Gisela a pain au chocolat and porridge with blueberries for me. It wasn’t easy to stick to a reduced calorie intake, but the bloating seemed to be slowly dissipating and I was wearing jeans I hadn’t managed to for over a year. I would have to stick at it, if I was to lose two stone before the summer.

‘Well?’ Lil asked. We all looked at Armando.

‘My relationship – ’

‘Oh no, not more drama. I don’t think I can take it,’ Lil said. I rolled my eyes, internally, as most of the drama in our little group was Lil-centric.

‘- is fine,’ continued Armando, ‘however, that doesn’t mean there aren’t difficulties.’ Armando paused as Judith arrived with his double espresso. He stirred slowly and didn’t look up. We waited expectantly for him to continue. I was glad Lil didn’t prompt impatiently for details. I poured the tea. Lil stirred her cup noisily and for longer than necessary. Eventually Armando looked up and continued.

‘I don’t think I mentioned before that he was married previously, to a woman.’ Lil dropped her teaspoon.

‘He is of course divorced and was so when I met him.’

‘Is he bisexual?’ Lil asked.

‘No he is gay.’

‘Doesn’t make any sense,’ Lil said. The table fiddled uncomfortably and I think Lil realised she had overstepped the mark.

‘He has two children which makes it even trickier,’ Armando added. I willed Lil not to speak.

‘Does he still see them?’ Gisela asked.

‘Yes, he is a good father and spends time with them every week.’

There was another break in the conversation as Judith was beside us with our food. Lil didn’t waste any time and declared ‘yummy’ as she sliced a tomato. It was like watching surgery; next the toast was buttered and the egg skin folded back to reveal the soft yellow innards.

‘I’m not sure where I fit in, and it was on my mind all night and this morning,’ Armando said.

‘He probably feels the same way,’ Lil said.

‘All relationships are difficult,’ Gisela said and sighed.

‘Sorry?’ Armando asked looking at Lil.

‘Don’t look all hurt, I mean that you’re married to this place. He might be concerned that you’re not putting him first either.’

‘I hadn’t thought of that perspective.’ Armando drained the last dregs from his miniature cup and signalled to Judith for another.

‘I’m not just a senile old bat.’ Lil let out an excruciatingly loud, guttural laugh before anyone had a chance to agree or disagree. I hadn’t missed Gisela’s comment either, which weighed heavy with meaning. She wasn’t herself today.

‘You don’t meet people without baggage when you get to our age, we included,’ I said.

‘I don’t know about that,’ Lil said, ‘hello love.’ She stood to plant a smacker on Bill’s expectant and pouted lips. We scooted across to make room for Lil’s beau.

‘What have I missed?’

‘Oooooo your new shoes look lovely,’ Lil said looking adoringly at Bill’s feet. Bill shuffled in a dance-type movement and followed with an attempt at jazz hands. Lil giggled. They were still enveloped in young or rather fresh love which was sweet, however, I didn’t need to see the saccharine up so close and personal.

‘His other pair were starting to let the wet in,’ Lil said. Bill shrugged in a ‘looking for sympathy’ way. Armando smiled. The joy of love was contagious.

‘We went to Muswell Hill yesterday and I got these in Clarks. In the sales, I’ll have you know.’

Bill started to shuffle again. ‘Sit down now darling,’ Lil said. ‘I also got a lovely new frock in one of the charity shops. Some of the rich old biddies must have had a clear out. It didn’t even look worn. I’m saving it for a special occasion.’ Lil winked and inserted the last crumb of toast into her mouth in a seductive manner. We all blinked in shock.

‘Special occasion?’ I asked and nervously passed my empty bowl to Judith.

‘Another pot?’ Judith asked rhetorically.

‘It’s great news, isn’t it Bill. Do you want to tell them or should I?’

‘I think you’re making a big deal out of it,’ Bill said.

‘Stop being so bloody modest.’

‘Will someone tell us what is happening?’ Armando asked.

‘Do I need a hat?’ Gisela asked.

‘You can wear a hat if you want Gi…’ Lil started to tap her hands on the table, in imitation of a drum roll. ‘Bill is making his comeback as our bingo caller in two weeks’ time. I’m so proud.’ Bill coughed.

‘I’ve got to learn how to use the new machine.’

‘What happened to the last?’ Armando asked. I kicked him under the table.

‘You might recall it fell over.’ Lil glared at Armando.

‘Is it easy to use?’ I asked.

‘It is but it’s all arse about face’

‘Huh?’ Armando asked.

‘Everything is the opposite way round. I’ve had a practice and will have another few sessions to get to grips with the beast before the main event.’

‘Fantastic news Bill. Are we all invited?’ I asked.

‘Of course you are. It’s a special occasion. Everyone has to be there,’ Lil said.

Judith appeared as ever in a timely fashion with a china receptacle full with brewing golden, elixir.

‘I’m glad you’re happy and settled,’ Gisela said. She started to fidget in her seat.

‘Thank you my lovely friend.’ Lil took Bill’s hand. I stirred the pot.

‘It’s especially timely as I have some news.’

Bilder Alfter

Lil released Bill’s hand and gaped at Gisela. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Let’s pour the tea first,’ I said. I could see that Gisela was uncomfortable and needed a few moments to collect her thoughts.

‘Well?’ Lil said as soon as I’d replaced the pot on the table.

‘I’ve been talking to my cousin’s daughter in Alfter.’ Gisela paused to take a sip – all eyes on her. ‘They’ve invited me to go and stay with them for an extended period, and if it all works out, they’ve asked me to live with them permanently.’

Lil slammed her cup on the table. ‘You can’t?’

‘You’re happy with Bill.’

‘You’re my best friend.’

‘We can still write.’

‘It won’t be the same.’

‘We can talk on the phone.’

‘It won’t be the same.’

‘I miss Germany.’

‘I thought you were happy in England. You’ve not mentioned a longing for Germany before.’

‘I didn’t realise how much until I visited.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me how you were feeling and what you were planning to do?’

‘It was only finalised yesterday.’

‘Finalised – exactly. You didn’t even tell me what was on your mind. I thought friends, especially close friends spoke to each other.’

‘I didn’t want to upset you.’

‘A bit late for that now isn’t it.’

‘Let’s calm down,’ I said and placed my hand affectionately on Lil’s arm.

‘I’d forgotten how comfortable it feels to speak German every day. I speak and think in English of course, I’ve been here so long, but it was like putting on an old glove.’

‘That makes sense. When I was in Spain at Christmas it’s easier to speak your mother tongue.’

‘Yes, and I didn’t realise that I cared about family, and seeing family so much until I met them again. And you know I miss German sausage.’ I tried not to snigger like a schoolboy.

‘Gisela, it isn’t fair. Everything is so good at the moment.’

‘Lil you have Bill, Cyril, Nelly, and not to mention Wayne and Armando. I’m sure you’re not going to miss me that much.’

‘I will.’ Lil pouted her lips and produced one of her legendary tuts.

Gisela looked alarmed but pressed on. ‘My cousin, Sabine, has a granny annex, which has two bedrooms and two bathrooms. It’s on the same plot as her daughter’s, Sybille. The plan is that I would take the second bedroom.’

‘And what’s your cousin to say about that?’ Lil asked.

‘She is keen too.’

Lil huffed and folded her arms.

‘We were close as girls, and goodness only knows how we will get on together now but I’m hoping it will be good and fun.’

‘She’s probably changed,’ Lil said.

‘But relationships formed in childhood can last a lifetime,’ I said with purpose in my voice. This was a little harsh, and Lil picked up on my Mavis reference. However, she needed to back off with her attack. Lil turned her cup on its saucer in a truculent manner.

‘I think if you have a chance for happiness you should grab it,’ Bill said. We all looked at him a little shocked that he would dare overrule Lil. ‘I did, and I’m sure glad I came back to London, otherwise I might not be in the best relationship of my life right now.’ Lil stayed quiet, and fingered her cup in a less fractious manner, which was quite astonishing. Bill’s influence provided a sedative effect.

‘I’m sorry,’ Gisela said and started to cry.

‘Don’t cry now. I’m sorry too for getting so cross. I’m going to miss you that’s all. Shall we have another tea?’

‘Tea, yes,’ Armando said.

‘You’re going to miss my bingo debut, well return rather than debut.’

‘That is a disappointment. Perhaps someone could take photos and send them to me.’

‘I will,’ I said.

‘There are a couple of spare bedrooms in the big house too. Perhaps you and Bill would come and visit.’

‘Me, in Germany. Are you joking?’ Lil was cackling again which was a good sign. ‘I don’t understand a bloody word. What’s the German word for Assam?’

‘Assam,’ I said.

‘We’ll see about the visit,’ Bill said, winked at Gisela, and took Lil’s hand again.

‘Excellent. Cyril is going to holiday with us too.’

‘Cyril knows?’ Lil asked.

‘Yes.’

I wasn’t sure if this was going to set Lil off again. ‘What about Armando and me?’

‘I would love for everyone to visit. Even Marty Maguire. I’m sure there are plenty of lonely elderly ladies in Germany longing for his charm.’

After we’d finished chortling at Gisela’s witticism we finished our tea and went on our way. Breakfast Club was to change again. Gisela may not be one of the core or founding members, but she’s played a great part in our weekly meetings and had been a phenomenal support for Lil particularly when battling some of the other women in their age club. I suspected the person who would miss her most was Cyril, particularly as Lil and Bill were now so committed to each other. I resolved to check in with him later in the day. He and Gisela were Lil’s wing people and spent a lot of time together.

 

 

 

 

Resolutions Abound

New Year’s Eve is one of my favourite celebrations and this one in rural Hertfordshire didn’t disappoint. We started early with a delicious homemade brunch accompanied by Bucks Fizz as worthy sustenance before embarking on a long and arduous walk to a designated pub. We rambled across fields, through frozen mud, up and down hills and passed various country animals. At the pub we defrosted with mulled wine and Prosecco. Late afternoon we called into another local pub for further fizz as a prelude to the main party, which provided more Champagne, food and exotic alcohol beverages. The bong of midnight came and went as we quenched our thirst for 2015. My resolution is to never drink alcohol again. I have managed to sustain my resolve thus far; Sherry has not even furnished a glass.

It seemed from our Breakfast Club party that at last Lil was going to be happy, but there was a cost – isn’t there always?, and that would be Marty McGuire. We didn’t have Breakfast Club on New Year’s Day and Armando and I decided to call on him on 2nd.

We rang the bell several times without a response, and having seen the square footage of his bedsit there was no chance he was out of earshot. We were just about to abort our mission when a familiar ‘Hello fellas’ came from behind, followed by a ‘how can I help you today?’

‘Hi Marty. We wanted to see how you were?’

‘You’d better come in then.’ Marty’s plastic carrier bag clinked as he moved forward to open the door. The hallway hadn’t received a festive spruce and looked as sad as it previously had. Marty’s room was still untidy.  It was impossible to analyse any signs of increased distress and mess as a result of his recent lost love. He filled the kettle from the dripping faucet and inspected the inside of three cups sitting on the sideboard.

‘Clean – that’s lucky.’ Marty’s attempts at hospitality were thoughtful. He put two teabags in the pot and extracted a bottle of whole milk from the fridge. After taking a sniff presumably to validate it wasn’t sour, he sat down.

‘No biscuits I’m afraid. I wasn’t expecting visitors and I’m surprised to see you to be honest.’

‘It’s been an emotional few weeks,’ I said.

‘I’m fine. You two must be happy.’ Marty looked down and showed the first signs of bitterness.

‘No, not happy –’

‘So you’d rather Lil be with me then?’

‘I think what Armando was trying to say was that we care a lot about Lil, and yes we want her to be happy, but we’re also here to see you. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what we think.’

‘Yes, yes I understand. It hurts though and just my bloody luck.’

‘We wanted you to know that you’re still welcome at any time,’ Armando said.

We drank our creamy tea while Marty told us about a dead cert in the 3pm that day. I was glad that he hadn’t accused us of plotting against him and he didn’t seem to be holding a grudge. We parted on good terms.

‘See you when I’m looking at ya.’ Marty closed his front door. There was a commotion downstairs and a woman shouting at her child who was playing on the stairs. I withheld any advice on the dangers of progeny amusing themselves on the stairwell and squeezed past.

‘Coffee?’ asked Armando.

I nodded and we set off in the direction of the café. We were less than a few feet into our journey when we encountered Nelly McAleen armed with a Pyrex dish covered with tin foil.

‘A pie for my brother.’ Nelly held aloft her container.

‘We’ve been to see him.’

‘A funny business,’ Nelly said.

‘I hope he’ll be OK.’

‘Yes Wayne, he’ll bounce back. We’ve always had to.’

There was a sadness around this interaction. Nelly had looked after her brother, and I think she hoped he’d rely on her less with Lil in the picture.

‘Are you still on good terms with the girls?’

‘Yes – I had tea with Gisela and Cyril yesterday.’ I chuckled at the thought of Cyril being one of the girls. Lil was absent and I knew why only too well. This was not the time to highlight who had kept her away from an afternoon tea.

‘Oh. I didn’t see you.’ Armando folder his arms – even in this delicate situation he didn’t appreciate customers patronising another café.

‘No, we were at Cyril’s. He baked a deliciously light Madeira.’

‘I hope we’re still going to see you around Mrs McAleen,’ I said.

‘Yes of course, and don’t worry about my brother. If I’m honest he has already asked Doris out to tea.’ We smiled. This was the Marty we expected; the Irish charmer was beginning to bounce back.

‘Anyway, this pot is getting heavy and there is a Coca-Cola with my name on it.’ We kissed Nelly and carried on to our coffee.

We decided to squeeze in a Breakfast Club at the weekend. I had no idea who would be attending. Lil had been all consumed with Bill and mostly incommunicado. I took this as a good sign. I patted my ‘Ho Ho Ho’ sweater as it went back into a storage container and on top of the wardrobe for another year. My jeans were squeezing my waist after the excesses of the season and I resolved to stop eating once I was back at work. I popped a multi-coloured sweater over a Madonna T-shirt.

I was early and first into the café.

‘Who’s coming?’ Armando shrugged his shoulders from behind his trusty counter.

Cyril and Gisela arrived next.

‘No Lil?’ I asked

‘She’s nipped to the Post Office,’ Gisela said.

Judith was on hand with a large, steaming pop of Assam. Armando wiped his hands on his apron and joined us. It was unusual starting Breakfast Club within its patron.

‘I would like to order a coffee today please,’ Gisela said and added, ‘I’ve not slept too well and need something stronger to wake me up.’

‘One espresso please.’ Armando turned and called out to a disappearing Judith. She nodded; her back still to us.

‘Why are you not sleeping?’ I asked.

‘What a bloody liberty.’ Lil stood before us huffing and puffing – hands on hips, and dependable trolley at her side. ‘Budge over.’ Lil prodded at Cyril with her stick.

‘Don’t get your bloomers in a knot – we’ve not even ordered yet.’ I stood to allow Cyril to move and planted a kiss on Lil’s cheek.

‘It’s knickers in a twist.’ Lil thrust her trolley into the vacant space between tables. She looked more flustered than a trip to the Post Office should create.

Judith returned with a small cup and saucer containing dark, aromatic liquid.

‘Wunderbar.’

Our orders were placed: three Full Englishes, a raspberry and orange muffin and a vegetarian breakfast with a sausage on the side. I ordered extra toast. The food restriction would start tomorrow.

‘I had a beautiful and long letter from my cousin’s daughter. She is in Germany. I didn’t realise my visit had affected her so much.’

‘What you talking about Gi?’ Lil said.

‘I didn’t sleep well…’

‘I’ll pour, shall I?’ Lil said. I took the heavy, oversized pot from her to prevent spillage.

‘It’s difficult when your family is in another country,’ Armando said.

‘Yes. I didn’t think so until my recent visit. Our family has shrunk considerably and very few are left. We got on very well. She lives in a large village called Alfter, which is just outside Bonn. It’s a lovely spot. She and her husband have done well. Her mother, my cousin Sabine, lives in the house next door, or at the bottom of the garden, dependent upon your point of view.’

‘Good job you visited them already, isn’t it.’ Lil was irritated and I hoped this wasn’t an omen of problems with Bill. I wasn’t going to ask yet.

‘Yes, it is. She has invited me to go back for another.’

‘That sounds lovely.’ Cyril jumped in quickly. ‘I for one think it’s fabulous that you’ve reconnected with your family.’

‘How are you Cyril?’ Armando asked.

‘A little pensive. I went to the cinema in the week and watched My Old Lady. I wish I lived in a Parisian apartment and was paid over 2000 euros a month under a viager.’ Cyril put his teacup down and looked towards the front windows.

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‘Paris? Bonn? What’s wrong with good ole London Town?’ Lil asked.

Breakfasts arrived. The steam rose from the plates delivering a delicious aroma. I was famished and furnished my fork with baked beans and a slice of mushroom. Goodness knows how I was going to cope with a return to a solitary bowl of porridge.

‘What is viager?’ Armando asked.

‘It’s a life estate. The property is sold for a monthly fee, which is paid for as long as the person lives. If they die quickly then the buyer has a great deal. If they live for many years the buyer ends up, potentially, paying over the odds. It’s a gamble, but I’d love to get a monthly income for living at home. It’s not as if I have children and my family don’t need any help.’

‘Who pays you?’ Lil asked.

‘The person who buys your home.’

‘But why do they pay you if they’ve already paid for the property?’

‘They don’t pay, or maybe don’t pay much for the property. I’m not sure of the precise detail.’ Cyril had placed his cutlery on the table to better focus as he tried to explain the subtleties of a foreign system to Lil.

‘Could I get a viag, or estate for life or whatever the bloody thing is called?’ Lil said.

‘Isn’t your flat council?’ Gisela asked.

‘Yes.’

‘Then the answer is no.’

‘There’s no sodding use in talking about it then.’ Lil’s egg yolk splattered across her plate. She was in no humour today for delicately peeling back the skin.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ I asked.

‘Me?’

‘Yes.’

‘Why?’

‘You seem to have a short fuse.’

‘No I don’t.’

‘You weren’t like this before you went to the Post Office,’ Cyril said.

‘What do you mean?’ Lil pointed her fork at Cyril. She was spoiling for a fight. I would have to face it head on.

‘Where is Bill by the way? I thought he might join us today.’

‘He wasn’t going to join us. He has too much to sort out at his flat, and we are going out to dinner later.’ Lil picked up a piece of toast and threw it back down again. ‘My toast is cold.’

‘Toast doesn’t stay hot.’ Armando supported Lil, but pride for the café came first – always.

Lil burst into tears. I steered her from her chair and to the back room, which was empty fortunately. I held Lil close as she sobbed.

‘How can I help?’ I asked.

‘It’s mess after mess. I can’t cope anymore.’ Another sobbing fit ensued. Judith appeared at the door and I shook my head.

‘You have to tell me what’s upset you.’ I released Lil from my embrace and in doing so encouraged her to sit up and pull herself together sufficiently to provide me with the details.

‘Bill came to the Post Office with me.’ Lil was still sobbing. I passed her a tissue and she wiped her eyes.

‘Thank you. I saw Mavis across the street, near one of the charity shops and she waved back.’ Lil paused again to blow her nose.

‘Go on,’ I said.

‘Bill said he had something to tell me when we were in the queue. He sounded nervous. Bloody Bellamy has been on at him all week for a catch up. I left Bill in the queue and drove my trolley across the road, in front of the 41. She was chatting to some poor unsuspecting woman. The corner of her mouth started to turn upwards as she saw me approach. She knew that I knew what she’d been doing.’

‘Why don’t you ignore her? She knows she’ll get a rise from you.’

‘This was the final straw and I know I’ve said that before and I always promised I would look out for her, but I couldn’t deal with any more upset. She started to ask after my health. I held my hand up and told her to fucking shut up.’

I was always shocked when such a word came from Lil’s lips.

‘Do you know that she wrote to Bill once when he was away? Once, and that was months ago. She moved onto Marty because I did. She always wants what I have. I threatened her with something I’ve never threatened her with before…’

Lil paused. She took a sip from the glass of water Judith had silently delivered.

‘You’re going to have to tell me.’

Lil shuffled in her seat and then looked me straight in the eyes.

‘I said I would go and find her son, the one she had out of wedlock, when she was 16. And she knew I meant it. She fled.’